Saturday, 18 September 2021

Nothing is Being Suppressed

Pentimento 2021

Nothing is Being Suppressed is currently advertised on the Shearsman website as being out in October, but in fact it has been delayed by the permissions seeking process, and will not be out until the first quarter of 2022.

I signed off the text late in 2020, but the delay has inevitably led to further thoughts about the period (the book is about poetry in the 1970s). I say in the introduction
Victor Turner remarks, about a tribe in Mali: "A fascinating historical and diffusionist problem is posed by the close resemblance between Dogon myth and cosmology and those of certain neo-Platonist, Gnostic, and Kabbalistic sects and 'heresies' that throve in the understory of European religion and philosophy. One wonders whether, after the Vandal and Islamic invasions of North Africa and even before these took place, Gnostic, Manichaean and Jewish-mystical ideas and practices might have penetrated the Sahara to the Western Sudan and helped to form the Dogon Weltbild. The Gnostic sequences of 'archons', arrayed as binarily opposed androgynous twins, have affinities with Fon and Dogon notions. (...) It is possible that adherents of such persuasions filtered or fled through the centuries to the Niger region and as bearers of a more complex culture exercised influence on the beliefs of its inhabitants."

The point I am making is about the counter-culture’s vision of itself as sinking out of sight and permeating the margins of a dominant media culture. However, there is an important qualification to be made about the quality of Turner’s sources. The information about the Dogon derives from the work of Marcel Griaule (and his pupil Germaine Dieterlen), and other anthropologists have shown that these myths are not part of a wider Dogon culture and are unknown to other Dogon informants. In fact, it seems that Griaule’s informants invented the myths during interviews, under very detailed prompting from Griaule. There is a detailed 1991 paper by Walter van Beek (available on the internet) which explains the problems with this material. So Turner’s proposal about mythic themes reaching West Africa carried by exiles from the eastern Roman Empire does not seem likely to be true. The point about the counter-culture still holds. I have to admit that I know nothing about the Fon, and that Griaule did not publish about them.

The idea of a mythology being invented by one or a few people, in a moment when an illiterate culture is meeting literacy, or in other conditions of breakdown and loss of boundaries, is not quite unique to the Dogon. It is likely that the narrative of the Lenne Lenape (also known as the Delaware Indians) published by Constantine Rafinesque in 1836 was invented by Rafinesque. It is true that the text is in the Delaware language and an invented Delaware script, which would have taken great effort. The situation is not clear, and is not clear for any of the remarkable texts which belong in this category (or apparent category). The Delaware were never numerous, dwindled as the British settlers gradually took over their land, and part of the picture is the almost complete absence of surviving Delawares who could have validated Rafinesque’s text. The level of creativity involved is disturbing, but we just have to accept that these powers of affabulation are present in some individuals and in some cultural contexts, and that politically valid myths are more rigid and the act of memorising them inhibits people’s ability to invent themes and persons. In fact, the context where a story is known to many people, and these other witnesses will correct you if you are wrong, is the inhibiting framework, and the creativity starts exactly where that context is missing. Macpherson's Ossian tales seem to fit into this category (his first few efforts were translations but it seems that he began inventing after that point. (Details on Rafinesque in Stephen Williams’ book Fantastic Archaeology.) Blake can also be seen as a mythological forger.
Some odd astronomical facts which appear in the responses recorded by Griaule have led to a lucrative series of Däniken-like paperbacks describing how the Dogon were visited by creatures from outer space, who imparted the astronomical knowledge to them.
It may be that information collected by social anthropologists is genuine tribal lore, shared by many people in the culture in question, but it may also be that interview subjects make things up to please the anthropologist, and that some parts of “anthropological knowledge” are more systematic and more rich in symbolic meaning than is really the case. Griaule set out to demonstrate the complexity of a “tribal” culture and pursued this goal at the expense of careful controls on the interview situation. As for the postulate that there is knowledge which is known to initiates, and not to the majority of the population in the district or the village, this is a minefield. It sounds like anthropologists claiming to understand a society better (and to recognize more layers of symbolic analogy) than the members of that society.
Just to recap, I am not saying that the mythic tales which Griaule collected are not examples of human creativity, or that they were not produced by Dogon informants. I am just saying that they did not exist in traditional Dogon lore. Creativity is the striking thing about them, and I am in favour of that. His publications are answers, not narratives, and the matching narratives (or songs?) do not exist (or have never been found). The only texts are in French.
It is only fair to say that the responses printed in Current Anthropology, the periodical which published van Beek’s paper, show that there is no consensus among anthropologists in favor of van Beek, and about the status of the interviews which Griaule carried out and the information he gleaned from them. However, Dirk Lettens had published, already in 1971, a very long book which denounced Griaule’s reports as fabrications unconnected to the culture of the area. Griaule’s publications told some of the most fabulous stories in the whole anthropological record, and it is fair to say that this fact inspired a lot of anthropologists to go and do field work in Mali and among the Dogon. It seems that none of them found stories and myths resembling the ones that Griaule reports on.

Let me post up here some material which there was no room for in the finished book.

At a late point in the project, I realised that Faber had published four volumes of Poetry Introduction in our period (dated 1969 to 1978), and that these offered a list of 33 young poets who could be read as a version of what was happening in the decade. Exactly one of these names re-appears in Mottram’s “top tips” of 46 names – already a sign that we are dealing with a different view of the world. Crudely, we can define this group as the continuing mainstream of the Seventies, a current moving forward in its own time as if the Underground didn’t exist and as if the rules hadn't changed. This would actually give us a fifth bloc (and the count of genres, or marketing concepts, is bursting its limits). Certainly these early poems are not the best way to get at what was vital in each poet, and we would do better to look at 33 first books (or, even better, second books). Two of these 33 names were Jeremy Hooker and David Harsent.

David Harsent
When Dreams of the Dead was published in 1977, Peter Porter wrote “The people in David Harsent’s new poems seem to have moved into George MacBeth’s world. There is an opulence of drinks on terraces; the silences between lovers (a Harsent speciality) are in luxury hotel suites; a great deal of travelling goes on. […] I wish I could fit plots to the assemblages of lyrics which make up [two long poems]. ‘Dreams of the Dead‘ consists of lyrics dated from 30 April to August 23, yet the progress of the story does not reveal whether it is the dead who are dreaming or whether the poet is entering the lives of dead persons. A huge plot [...] has been lost somewhere: all we have are its lyrical highlights. I am sure Harsent is going in the right direction.”
Porter says this but I think the omission of information is deliberate and part of a strategy of tension. The characters are trapped in a pipe of incomplete information. The loss of resolution means that alertness climbs and climbs; the lack of answers to basic questions about safety means that tension can never be released. It is hard to define this because we do not have access to the unedited text and because the effect of the omissions is not explicit. The sense of threat is impalpable and the plot is never explained. Anxiety and triumph are inexplicit figures. The method is profoundly original in poetry. It may resemble the specialist narrative style of cinema based in violence and risk – where editing which withholds vital information makes the sense of a present threat escalate. Speculation about risk is what sucks us into the heart of the poem. The lack of perspective traps us there. The title echoes a moment in the poem, refers to the culture of dead artists, but is not a central theme. The poem does not add a wind-down which would explain the story and dissipate all the tension. It immerses us in menace, foreboding, and a sense of fate gripping the protagonist and leading him pitilessly through a story. His conscious reactions have no effect on the story. Peripheral details develop an unnatural vividness because of hypervigilance, a displacement of anxiety into an object which offers no resolution. Dreams is something profoundly original which to my knowledge has no successors. Its scale is an exit from the poetic limits of the time, creating an entire narrative. But the narrative is reduced to its essential structure – uncertainty, the vacuum that draws us in.

Soliloquies of a Chalk Giant

Jeremy Hooker published Soliloquies in 1974. The theme is the phallic figure of a giant,180 feet tall, an outline in white chalk revealed by cutting away the grass turf hiding it. The date is sometime in the late first millennium BC, and the site is at Cerne Abbas in Dorset. The chalk ground also contains flints. Because the chalk is the product of a sea bed, and the detritus of shelly creatures on it, some of the poems are about the shore. A poem lists objects found near the hillside:

A reindeer bone carved
in the reindeer’s likeness.
A chalk phallus.
A lump of chalk
with heavy curves
bearing the image of woman.

A necklace with blue beads
of Egyptian faience, black ones
of Kimmeridge shale.
Cannon ball
A phallus carved on the church wall.
A statuette of the Virgin.
(‘Found Objects’)

The concept is heavily influenced by John Cowper Powys and David Jones, whom Hooker had written about. As in The Sleeping Lord, the chalk giant is not so much a person as the tutelary deity of a place. The catalogue style of this poem is notably rapid and assertive. The lumps of mineral are portable and can be held in your hand, but also continuous with the land itself. The materials are endlessly evocative and the relations between them are compelling – like a grotto set with shells and stones. Hooker sees the giant as a symbol of the common people, as opposed to the monks who lived at Cerne Abbas (means Abbot’s), and celebrates the people of the area:

This is the ship of England, carved from a single oak. Her master is the navigant of the obscure passage, a hard-headed merchant with a fabulous map. He descends into the pit, and wrestles with the furnace. His labours are wrought in iron.
(‘The Giant’s Name’)

The collocation of giant and solitude is not sociable, but it opens the way for something superhuman – something which transcends the personal and advances into the terrain of myth. The soliloquist has preoccupations beyond the human:

The rest is illusion
Illusion with talons hooked through my bones.
It is an anchor
From the bottom of the sea,
It is fixed in the floor of the sea
Like an axe-head fast in a skull.
If I could move it, the world would shift.
(from ‘The Giant’s Shadow’)

The chalk comes from the bottom of the sea, and the passage seems to be about the real nature of the chalk and the illusory one of the image which it forms. The force of the poem comes in part from eliminating the human voice – we are not being led around by a tourist, talking about scenery, but the poem is wholly given over to the giant, an irrational force whose senses are wider than and incompatible with ours. The theme could even be the whole chalk land, covering much of the south-west, the floor of the Channel, and even northern France beyond. The voice which speaks is crucial; it is nailed to the giant’s physiology like a picture painted onto the awkward surfaces of a flint. This comes out of the existentialist preoccupations of mid-century, where constricting the world of a poem to the unstable space in and around a body failed for sociological reasons – the human subjects were too sedate and conventional. As David Wevill bypassed this, in poems like ‘Birth of a Shark’, while keeping the physiological density, so Hooker’s poem retains the giant’s ‘point of view’ as its constraint, its horizon. A place could be defined as a zone from which everywhere else is invisible.
Considering two poets from the original Poetry Introduction 1, of 1969, allows us to reflect on the continuing strength of the mainstream. But it also suggests the intensity of underlying historical changes – in several key ways, these two poets resemble what was happening in the Alternative world, and have abandoned the allegiances of the Movement. Their ‘elective past’ connected them to essentially lonely and peripheral figures such as John Cowper Powys, David Jones, and Ted Hughes. They have the charge which makes the underground appeal to me. Without breaking the rules of grammar, they were writing radically unfamiliar poems, original at every point.

The theme of this new material is the pervasive quality of radical innovation – poets not associated with “the Alternative” in institutional terms nonetheless writing very strong poetry which was impressively innovative when compared to the still prevalent 1950s-style conservative poetry. So continuing work is weakening the basic thesis of the book (about the power of Alternative poetry) by adding evidence which points in a different direction. People would have found this confusing. Chapters discussing all 33 of those Faber young poets would have confused people, although I did think about writing them. Other work is turning up poets I hadn't read, like Jeremy Hilton, Pete Hoida, and Ian Seed. Ian has produced terrific poetry in the past 20 years, the fact that he was publishing poetry already in 1974 is unsettling and I have not been able to assess this early work. I also could not find room for this piece about a wonderful poem by George MacBeth.

Slogans, masks, astrology: Lusus

Lusus is subtitled “a verse lecture” and comes in 42 parts, or about 780 lines. Lusus means game, and the theme is play; the poem soars in minimal form over the whole extent of human culture. MacBeth was always a dandy, and this theme allows ideal scope for that refusal to step into an emotional role. Narcissistically, but entrancingly, he shows us a private gallery of game players: D’Annunzio, Isaac Babel, John Cage, Demosthenes, a film by Godard, Hemingway, Walter Raleigh, Erik Satie, Jacques Soustelle, Tyrtaeus, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Lusus obviously deals with an intellectual topic which MacBeth felt close to and had a peculiarly deep understanding of. He serenely surveys the huge range of domains where the idea of a game yields propositions:

Areas: war-
games, game theory, role-

in psychiatry (hysteria
as malingering
etc.), genetic
codes, use
of models in economics,

aggression in monkeys, Games

People Play

The short lines are against speech contours but signal lightness of touch: the poem does not move fast because it is contemplative. We cannot derive the information waiting for us unless we slow down. As MacBeth says in section 13, the model for lineation was A.R. Ammons’ Tape for the Turn of the Year, where all the lines are narrow because he was typing it on a till-roll.
The poem is a list of schemas. How much poets dislike these! They might calm down if they saw a schema as a form of game, where formalism and separateness allow lucidity and, at the right moment, withdrawal. At one point MacBeth (paraphrasing Roger Caillois) groups games, in general, into four domains: jousting; roundabouts (ilinx); roulette, or chance; and mimesis (imitation). Ilinx, Greek for dizziness, is “the most difficult”; it is “orgasms, death-throe, or rock’n’roll.” It appears as a convulsive whirling, high energy and evading the opponent’s senses, and yet not out of control. Could we apply this to poets competing with each other? It is correct to say that a computer program is like a game: it is a model, governed by rules. The phase of computing history when a calculating engine was built, by Johnny von Neumann, to run iterations of a thing called the Monte Carlo simulation, was key to developing the atomic bomb (and the computer industry). It wasn’t quite gambling but it did deal with probability. Von Neumann was later the founder of game theory.
The primary source is clearly Johan Huizinga’s Homo ludens, or “man the player” (1938), a comparative cultural study which was one of the first attempts to define general traits of human behaviour, outside a religious framework. It was published in 1972, but MacBeth had already gone a long way into ludic poems: in 1964, a play of his was produced at the Establishment, a satirical night-club, in which the characters, following a nuclear disaster, are confined in a Paris Metro station and pass their time playing a game called “Fin du globe”. Details of a play-through of the game are given in his poem ‘Fin du Globe’, published in A Doomsday Book. Politics is permeated by symbolic activities– the codes which players have to follow bring it towards the game domain. Huizinga began as a student of South Asian languages, and the permeation of daily life by ritual is what led him, decades later, to the idea of homo ludens. MacBeth takes us into an alternative universe made of glass, where things that were soft become rigid and things that were opaque became transparent. The puzzle of how, in a modern western-type society, there can be an apparent complete lack of applicable rules, and yet there are rules which people follow to structure their behaviour in complex ways, limits accurate description, including of poems. The idea of game can get us closer to this. The theme lends itself to a poem because it lacks purpose. The subject matter is already aesthetic – lifted out of function.
We can compare Lusus with set procedures in poetry. The combination of rule-sets and advancing into the unknown is curiously like games. The extent of the unforeseen in such art can be defined as risk. The odds are not well formalised. The properties of the unpredictable are of great interest. This domain asks for set procedures to avoid the no-go situation of being unable to move or even to know what the state of play is. MacBeth went to Oxford and worked for the BBC and so has been written out of the history of experimental poetry; he was in the original John Matthias anthology of 1971, but when Mottram came to draw up his extended list he struck out some of Matthias’ poets, and one of them was MacBeth. I just want to observe that this was a poor decision. There is a fairly large Collected from which Lusus was excluded. In this way Lusus has disappeared from view and is a crux for the proper evaluation of a decade in which institutional critics went into denial mode. It is quite probably a masterpiece, a moment of genuine self-awareness, evoking anthropological depths at each point without ever lapsing into technical language. It is worrying how the whole column of ludic poetry, so brilliant over the last 35 years, has debouched out while the pioneer has been buried without ceremony. To reiterate, MacBeth was writing game poems in 1964. One game in Lusus was invented by MacBeth and friends, and a play-through is described in ‘The Crab-Apple Crisis’, in his Collected Poems.
33 says:

a rule is a player
in a code, having
its role,

fulfilling it,
according to a rule
in another

code, and so on
infinitum. The rule
moves at its own speed,
in a vacuum. It

creates a code or
a war when

merge. Collide. Out
of the rules
moving, the

structure of
possibility erects


Fuller and d’Arch Smith ran the Atlantis bookshop, and may have funded their poetry series, including Lusus, by selling fin de siècle occultist books to rock musicians.

I regret not finding room for this material in my book. But the process goes on. I wrote, earlier this year, a long essay about Harry Guest, a poet at his peak in the 1970s. I simply hadn't got the Guest story until this year. It’s crowd-out, there are always too many poets and the stage is over-full.

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